Given the polarized racial climate of our society, it is all too easy to pick a side. “ ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is going to change Hollywood. It’s about time,” reads the headline on Karen K. Ho’s optimistic article for Time magazine. She extols “the first modern story with an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years,” and she’s not wrong.
But then again, neither is the opposite take. “For some viewers, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is not Asian enough,” Mike Ives counters in The New York Times, citing descriptions of the film as “problematic” and “oppressive.”
We laud this movie as a cinematic masterpiece and disregard its defects, or we point out its faults and discredit its significance as a culturally revolutionary film. Now that the dust has settled, and “Crazy Rich Asians” has been nominated for two Golden Globe awards, we mustn’t overlook the insight the film grants us if we don’t reduce it to a good-bad binary.
We all know cultural appropriation is bad. Before I was capable of understanding what the words meant, I knew they were dirty.
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The sentiment was everywhere. My elementary school teachers showed me villainized photos of rice-farmer Halloween costumes, warning us of the insensitive bigots we could inadvertently become if we weren’t careful. My Cantonese mother imbued me with a visceral aversion to Oriental-theme parties, which threatened cultural erasure by perpetuating stereotypes that all Asians are the same.
These lessons served me well. I implicitly knew that cultural appropriation should be avoided at all costs, and I was also aware that it could happen by accident. I understood the offense many took when Scarlett Johansson was cast as lead Motoko Kusanagi in the live action version of the Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell,” and the way it potentially trivialized Asian culture to a movie theme while suggesting that Asian actors and actresses themselves are less than desirable.
When “Crazy Rich Asians” hit theaters several months ago, I was similarly disgruntled. I gasped at the outdated, Confucian, misogynistic stereotype the film perpetuated by suggesting that powerful Asian women must sacrifice their careers, and frowned at the cherry-picked dumpling parties and mahjong games that threatened to reduce Asian culture to a means of entertainment. Under the false guise of economic profitability, the film homogenized the term “Asian,” supplanting sub-Asian diversity with a myopically fair-skinned, wealthy, British-accented version.
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ makes Asians seem sexy
Yet no offense was taken. Instead, Asians and non-Asians alike overlooked these deficiencies, labeled “Crazy Rich Asians” a cinematic triumph, and declared it the momentous step forward that the industry so direly needed.
To my surprise, I largely agreed.
In case you haven’t heard enough about the #OscarsSoWhite cinematic environment in which we find ourselves, “Crazy Rich Asians” is monumental. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was more than 92 percent white as recently as 2016, and the last full-Asian cast took place a quarter-century ago.
The film turns Singaporean society to an opulent potpourri of food, cars and glamour, making Asianness seem enviable in the process. In fact, in glorifying the Asian romance between Nick Young and Rachel Chu, “Crazy Rich Asians” actually makes Asians themselves sexy.
Cultural appropriation and celebration, too
In certain respects, “Crazy Rich Asians” certainly does commit cultural appropriation, and we must be prepared to acknowledge that. Yet if we stubbornly degrade it as a failure to embrace Asian culture, we lose sight of the unprecedented wave of Asian popularity that it has catalyzed, redefining our perception of Asianness in and outside of cinema. Cultural appropriation and cultural celebration, despite popular opinion, are not mutually exclusive.
At a time when Hollywood is trying to change, this proof of coexistence could not be any more pertinent. While the #OscarsSoWhite movement speaks to a lack of representation, it simultaneously illustrates a decisive awareness and calls attention to progress that can’t be ignored. Last year’s “Black Panther,” for instance, paralleled “Crazy Rich Asians” in its attempt to revolutionize cinematic representation and cultural norms.
On a less dramatic scale, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (which opened last month) and “Miss Bala” (opening Feb. 1) constantly question the cinematic portrayal of culture. We can either swallow our qualms about cultural appropriation and accept it as a necessary evil, or we can negate the potential of film to redefine cultural norms in the same way “Crazy Rich Asians” has.
Even when the excitement over “Crazy Rich Asians” fades, its redefinition of cultural appropriation will remain critical. Let’s not forget this nuance during awards season.
Alexander Liebeskind, a Los Angeles native, is a student at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexLiebeskind